Monday, July 18, 2016

Another Reason Why Gun Control Doesn't Go Far Enough

Many Americans don't realize that substantial gun control legislation is already on the books. If one observed the arguments and counter-arguments currently raging, one might think this country has done nothing at all. In the midst of recent violence against young black men and police officers, we forget that established precedent exists. Loopholes within the existing legal language are at fault. Then, as now, the Gun Control Act of 1968 faced a hefty headwind in committee and barely made it to the President's desk. Then, as now, the National Rifle Association tried its best to kill it. It is still far too easy to buy a gun, forty-eight years later.

Passage of the Gun Control Act was initially prompted by the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The President was shot and killed with a rifle purchased by mail-order from an ad in National Rifle Association (NRA) magazine American Rifleman. Congressional hearings followed and a ban on mail-order gun sales was discussed, but no law was passed until 1968.
At the hearings NRA Executive Vice-President Franklin Orth supported a ban on mail-order sales, stating, "We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States."

When the NRA starts speaking sense, the world has indeed flipped upside down. Then-President Lyndon Johnson spoke lucidly upon signing the Gun Control Act.
"Congress adopted most of our recommendations. But this bill—as big as this bill is—still falls short, because we just could not get the Congress to carry out the requests we made of them. I asked for the national registration of all guns and the licensing of those who carry those guns. For the fact of life is that there are over 160 million guns in this country—more firearms than families."

What separates today from the frightening times of 1968 is the extreme pessimism of the American people. Back then, many young people and activists believed that a true revolution was imminent. Others were afraid and disgusted, and they made up Nixon's (not Trump's) silent majority. To a generation large in numbers that continues to actively shape our national discourse, these were the proverbial birth pangs of a better world order.

But with that order came an uptick in violence and a corresponding increase in handgun sales from the beginning of the 1960's to the end of the decade. Even women began packing heat and heading for firing ranges to test their aim.

I can't help but be reminded of a particular book I read in college. Robert Penn Warren's novel All the King's Men is a story of a Louisiana demagogue named Willie Stark. Now a classic, the novel discusses the nature of politics and power. Jack Burden is Willie's right hand man. Jack's last name is chosen deliberately. He will bear the burden of his boss's actions no matter what. Eventually forced into an ethical dilemma, Burden can no longer dig up dirt and discredit Stark's opponents any longer. He can no longer be the Karl Rove of the Depression-era Deep South.   

Jack Burden remembers the years during which Willie Stark rose to power. While Willie was Mason County Treasurer, he became embroiled in a controversy over the building contract for the new school. The head of the city council awarded the contract to the business partner of one of his relatives, no doubt receiving a healthy kickback for doing so. 
One day during a fire drill at the new school, a fire escape collapsed due to faulty construction and three students died. At the funeral, one of the bereaved fathers stood by Willie and cried aloud that he had been punished for voting against an honest man. After that, Willie was a local hero. 

This is proof that sometimes times have to get worse before they get better. How many more people must die before Congress acts responsibly and President Obama signs the bill into law? I pray daily for real reform, but as a student of history, I recognize how easy it is to over-correct and over-compensate, pushing through legislation that is reactionary rather than wise. The public will eventually clamor for something to be done as one voice. The NRA may be powerful, but public will is strong when people fear for their lives and the lives of those they love.

This underscores a much more revealing trend. People are demoralized and disengaged from politics this go-round. I have seen relatively few Donald Trump t-shirts and bumper stickers, but the same is true for Hillary Clinton. It seems almost hard to conceive how tuned in so many of us were at this time eight years ago. Record crowds will not stand in the freezing cold on Inauguration Day.

We will lose a chief executive who has underwhelmed at times, but who has run an almost drama-free, scandal-proof Administration. Bill Maher has said much the same thing himself. It seems almost inconceivable, considering how difficult, even impossible, it is to prevent unflattering news from being widely disseminated in the Internet age. 

I hate to admit this, but conservative writer and interview subject George Will was correct to a degree. He said that the Obama phenomenon was metaphorical cotton candy and would eventually melt away. One wonder if he reached this conclusion due to some acumen in predicting the future. If so, I grant him the credit he is due. Should Hillary Clinton be elected, I expect change that I can believe in, now more than ever.  

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